A week at flight school

They are wrens I think — tiny yet portly rotund with beaks and tails protruding. They bounce and hop seemingly yet unable to walk but that’s unimportant – this is flight school.

I have kayaked 60 miles and am resting my arms from the incessant Hebridean Sea for a day or so. Above my hammock and hanging loosely from the rafters of my boat hut hideout is a muddled length of rope and, entwined within its curling loops, is a delicate little nest – perfectly circular and the size of a half–sized indoor football.

The nest is carefully fabricated using fine grasses from the rough shoreline machair and mosses found in shadier places. Peeking from the tiny circular entrance, feathers reveal inside is a cosily cocooned paradise.

Fledgling show

The chicks have merely been a squawking distraction but, on my second day resting, the little fur-balls appear and, athough they have developed flight feathers, they still patchily wear nursery uniforms of feather down. They look a shabby lot — first day at school with overdized uniforms to grown into.

Green for go

My long journey has reached its end but it is apparent others are beginning theirs. I watch the chicks at the doorway to their nursery home and, queuing like an orderly troop (referred to as a stick among paratroopers) of soldiers at the jump door, they leap into the unknown with an inbred, innate and genetic show of unbending faith.

Unable yet to fly the chicks drop from the entrance one by one, fluttering their wings to slow the hazardous descent and, like helicopters with damaged rear rotor, they spiral to controlled crashes on the hard boathouse floor five feet below.


Just like a stick of deployed and landed paratroopers, they are quickly up and standing, shaking their newly dusted wings as if gathering and collapsing parachutes in readiness.

Art of concealment

A flutter of flight–feathers held high above the dusty floor signals equipment checks are complete and, with a last shivver of expectation, they each run across the exposed concrete plain to begin the search for height and safety.


They are innately aware they are exposed in the open and at risk of being seen by any one of their Hebridean enemies including the Scottish wild cat, rats, squirrels, crows and of course barn owls.

They run to the edges of the boathouse drop zone, looking for shade and shadow to minimise their outline. Tactically speaking these troops haven’t yet missed a trick in the art of camouflage.


I count 14 wrens and, without exception, the entire stick finds its way back to the height of the rafters via the aid of various helpful pieces of decaying agricultural machinery propping up the boathouse walls.

The stick is standing in an orderly line along one of the many rafters fifteen feet above me. Enrolment for flight school has begun. All present and correct.

Into the void

I watch in fascination as, one by one, sometimes in pairs and often with no apparent order at all, the plucky little novices leap from their lofty training tower to the drop zone below.

This is a perfectly located flight school – inside a barn and hidden from the eagle-eyed sparrow hawks roosting on the nearby cliff top. I dread to think of the potential damage to a stick of wrens practicing from the bow of a tree in the open.


When doing the same, humans often experience a medical phenomenon called sensory overload. The human body is not designed to compute and process the unnatural madness of jumping into thin air and, due to the excessive rush of endorphins, it is commonplace for a skydiver never to remember the first five seconds of a free-fall.

For some thrill-seekers this is five seconds lost. But many others pump substances into their veins in the hope of losing as much. The intoxicating mix of endorphins and adrenaline give the body a high so heady many become addled with addiction – parachuting is a dangerous pastime.


I wonder why these troopers do it. Are they addled too? Probably. After each jump they hasten back to the perch for another go without pause.

There are 14 of them and their energetic cycle is endless. Their portly appearance, the result of continual feeding by both parents during early spring, gives them a charming look of indestructibility most suited to the hardships of bad landings at flight school.


This carry-on is ever on-going. For a few days I am entertained by these budding little Red Barons. Soon they begin to never touch the boathouse floor and, as they become increasingly confident, the stick thins and, one by one, they summon the courage to slip out of any of the many rusty holes in the corrugated iron wall to peek into the beyond.

The stick numbers fluctuate as some leave and some return but, gradually, the numbers thin.

Awarded wings

I wish them all luck and am convinced their chances are high. Once outside the boathouse they rarely fly but prefer to hop about under the heather and confine themselves to the vast network of dark tunnels within the low growing forest offering shadowy protection from skyward eyes.

After four or five days the boathouse is mine again and, with flight school closed and all students graduated, all is strangely quiet and I continue my journey.

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